The most common complaint I have heard from Nigerians about their country concerns corruption. Many Nigerians, as well as many outside observers, believe that corruption (ranging from bribes demanded by policeman to treasuries looted by politicians) is a key driver – the key driver, some say – of the country’s other problems.
Yesterday, Southwark Crown Court of London convicted former Delta State Governor James Ibori of money laundering and sentenced him to thirteen years in prison. Those who, like me, are unfamiliar with the British legal system can read more about Crown Courts here. Ibori, of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), governed Delta State from 1999, when Nigeria returned to civilian democracy, until 2007. Delta State is, of course, one of the oil-producing states in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Several members of Ibori’s family has also been convicted.
Human Rights Watch, which celebrated the verdict, included a useful backgrounder with their release yesterday. HRW provides details on the state of broader anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria as well as on Ibori’s case specifically.
The trial raises a number of issues. One is the international ramifications of corruption in Nigeria; the money trail and the tendency of elites to spend and store money abroad means that corruption becomes an international affair. Another issue is whether the case will significantly affect the atmosphere in Nigeria, either in terms of frightening currently serving politicians or strengthening calls within Nigeria for similar trials. And, while there is pessimism on that score, there is the possibility that further international trials will take place for Nigerian politicians.
Finally, there is the broader political context surrounding Ibori’s case and the entire question of corruption. Ibori’s defense was essentially a political one:
His defense counsel, Nicholas Purnell, argued that his crimes were mitigated by his achievements as governor, particularly the construction of vital infrastructure.
In a bizarre courtroom twist, Purnell called former Wimbledon footballer John Fashanu, now Nigeria’s ambassador for sports and tourism, as a character witness.
Fashanu praised Ibori for overseeing the construction in Delta State of three Olympic and FIFA-registered stadia, an 18-hole golf course and a shooting range.
Judge Pitts said he was not sure what use the ordinary people of Delta State were making of such facilities, but in any case it was not for him to judge Ibori’s overall performance as governor but rather to sentence him for his specific crimes.
HRW also frames the issue in political terms:
“This case was not just about financial transactions in British banks,” said [HRW's Africa Director Daniel] Bekele. “It was about acknowledging global responsibility for helping to stop the devastating human cost of corruption in Nigeria.”
Across Nigeria, ordinary citizens have seen little benefit from the country’s tremendous oil wealth, Human Rights Watch said. Maternal mortality rates are among the world’s highest, and poverty rates continue to climb. Nearly 100 million Nigerians – some 60 percent of the population – live on less than a dollar a day, according to a recent Nigerian government study.
Public funds that could have been used to improve schools and health facilities have instead been squandered and siphoned off by the country’s ruling elite. Human Rights Watch has documented how in some cases powerful politicians have used the vast wealth at their disposal to arm criminal gangs that fuel political violence.
Ibori’s case, both in its details and in its symbolic aspects, touches on core questions in Nigeria (questions that are relevant anywhere, but that are particularly charged in Nigeria): who benefits from wealth, the links between money, power, and corruption, and the effect on ordinary people of elite (mis)behavior.
I have not seen a statement from the government of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Ibori’s conviction. The current Delta State government has said it considers the conviction a private matter for Ibori.
The BBC has a video report here.